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Teacher of the Issue: Finnegan programming computer science-minded students

Rhea Choudhary
Coppell High School computer science teacher Michael Finnegan found computers intriguing from a young age, growing up in a decade without personal computers or access to the internet. Finnegan is in his seventh year of teaching at CHS, and is an inspiration to many. Photo by Rhea Choudhary.

As an inquisitive child that loved taking apart things and playing with their components, Coppell High School computer science teacher Michael Finnegan found computers highly intriguing in a decade with neither Internet or personal computers.

“In seventh grade, I got a job as a paper runner and my dad matched me dollar for dollar, buying my first computer,” Finnegan said. “There were a limited number of programs to buy, oftentimes I had to write my own. Once I reached high school, we did have a computer science class, but it was very easy for me. I thought computers were fascinating.”

After growing up in his home state of Oklahoma and graduating from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor’s degree in Management Science and Computer Systems and a master’s in Business Administration and Management from University of Central Oklahoma, Finnegan made the move to Texas in search of greater opportunities. After a brief time working as a claims adjuster for Liberty Mutual, he committed to the field of computer science and accepted a position at Microsoft.

Experiencing explosive growth through the 1990s, Finnegan was among the first 50 people to join Microsoft’s new Dallas product support facility in 1990. Although he worked across the company in a variety of roles, Finnegan specialized in core operating systems and networking.

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“I worked long hours at Microsoft where I would wake up to my kids asleep and return from work and sometimes they would already be asleep,” Finnegan said. “It got to a point where, being with a company that went through such explosive growth, they were very generous with their retirement pay packages and stock. After about 10 years, I was able to retire or stay with the company.”

If he stayed with Microsoft, Finnegan would likely have had to relocate to Microsoft’s corporate headquarters in Redmond, Wash. Not wanting to be any farther from family in Texas and Oklahoma, Finnegan chose to leave the company.

“Sometimes I think about whether I should have stayed or left,” Finnegan said. “But again, I traded that to spend more time with my family. I’m glad I got to do that.”

Combining his found passions in teaching as a corporate trainer and in working with young people as a youth director at his church, Finnegan set out for new opportunities. He found the perfect match in substitute teaching at CHS. However, unlike many other substitute teachers, Finnegan’s unique background in computer science proved highly beneficial.

“I’d often substitute for the two computer science teachers here and they let me truly teach,” Finnegan said. “I remember walking around the room and asking students if they needed any help and they’d say no because they didn’t think I knew anything. They’d always be surprised if I point out something faulty in their code.”

As those teachers retired, CHS hired Finnegan, along with current Coppell ISD director of CTE Josh Howard, to teach computer science. Since, the program has expanded significantly, with Finnegan now teaching both AP Computer Science A and Computer Science III, the most advanced computer science courses CHS offers.

“In high school teaching, you always are friendly with your students and it’s very laid back,” Finnegan said. “They work on the assignments, I help them and I love seeing their ideas. I like to see them struggle and finally break through to figure out the problem.”

As a student in his computer science III class, CHS senior Nalini Agnihotri accredits her understanding  of the computer science field to Finnegan’s encouragement and advice.

“I was failing a lot of tests last year because I struggled with the AP content,” Agnihotri said.  “And so I was like, ‘Hey Mr. Finnegan, before I take this test, can I come in for tutoring?’ He said ‘absolutely.’ I asked to come in as early as possible, he came at 7 a.m., I got tutored, and got a 100 on the test.”

Finnegan’s approach to teaching focuses on long-term learning and setting up a foundation for a future career in computer science.

“For some people, it’s a big jump,” Finnegan said. “It’s not about memorization. It’s sort of like here’s the tools: a hammer, a saw and a screwdriver. This is how they work, now build a house. If I show them how to build a house, they only know how to build a house, not anything else. So I just teach them the tools, but then they have to figure out how to apply them.”

In addition to tutoring and going the extra mile for current students, he also keeps in touch with past students who are currently in college or the workforce.

“He’s like, ‘if you ever need help, you can just ask me to meet anywhere and I’ll help you with an assignment or email it to me, and I’ll take a look at it,’” Agnihotri said. “I think that’s so amazing because he’s going above and beyond what a teacher does.”

Coppell High School computer science teacher Michael Finnegan helps senior Neha Gandikota with a coding assignment. Finnegan has found computers highly intriguing from a young age, growing up in a decade without personal computers or access to the internet. Photo by Rhea Choudhary. (Rhea Choudhary)

Finnegan has gone out of his way not just to help current and former students, but other teachers as well. As a recent hire and first-time teacher, computer science I and II teacher Isabel Gregorek worked under Finnegan in the 2022-23 school as a long-term substitute.

“It was comforting to know I could reach out to him with any questions, whether on the administrative side or handling things in the classroom,” Gregorek said.

As a continuous learner, Finnegan has attended computer science classes at community college and constantly seeks the best platforms to teach curriculum to students, even assisting Gregorek in studying for her computer science teacher certification exam.

“Rather than just telling me the answer, he would take the time to explain it,” Gregorek said. “If we were both stumped on a problem, he would find the answer instead of giving up, which says a lot about his teaching style. He wants his students to truly follow through with their work when confused, not blow through it.”

Finnegan’s extra time and effort towards these tasks shows the extent of his commitment to teaching and computer science, which transforms the lives of those around him.

“Finnegan will do anything and go out of his way to help a teacher. If we have a problem with certain concepts, he helps us go over them,” AP Computer Science Principles teacher Michael McCabe said. “He goes above and beyond what anyone would expect from a teacher, and does it without letting anyone know.”

Finnegan also integrates fun into class when needed. From telling stories of presenting to Bill Gates during his Microsoft days to bringing in virtual reality rhythm game Beat Saber for kids to play, this time provides a mental break and reward from the challenging class.

“It’s like a spark when students find something that they enjoy. I love when that happens,” Finnegan said. “That’s my greatest hope, that they come away with a greater appreciation for the course or the subject. Although I know that’s not always the case, I try to spark that in people.”

After seven years of teaching and countless years in the technology industry, Finnegan can spot potential and aims to bring it to the spotlight.

“We have a couple of kids who have won competitions because he saw the potential in them,” McCabe said. “He kind of becomes a mentor, asking them deliberate questions about their future and computer science, showing them interest because he’s been there. He’s been in the computer science game, in that industry. He knows what it takes to be successful.”

As a teacher who cares little about accolades, Finnegan would prefer people not even know his name, rather his kids receive the attention.

“If you haven’t got the chance to know him, he’s not a loud teacher. He’s not outgoing and won’t make a scene, but he quietly observes and helps everyone around him whether they ask or not,” McCabe said. “He’s a behind-the-scenes leader if you will.” 

This story was originally published on Coppell Student Media on May 10, 2024.